Illustration by Jiwon Shin/The Gazelle

Navigating Second-Language Relationships

At a school where languages and dialects frequently mix, expressing emotions can require its own unique form of translation. Regardless of what ...

Illustration by Jiwon Shin/The Gazelle
At a school where languages and dialects frequently mix, expressing emotions can require its own unique form of translation. Regardless of what language you speak, feelings always have to be converted into words, and these words need to be as easily understood as possible. What happens, however, when your significant other does not speak your native language? If you communicate your feelings into a second language, do you gain or lose in that double translation?
“Sometimes I find it difficult to describe my feelings in English. Emotions I feel intensely are reserved for Spanish, and I get upset when I cannot covey them with precision," explained sophomore Nathalie Kozak, a native Spanish speaker dating a U.S. American whose mother tongue is English.
For Kozak, the language barrier is not just a matter of daily conversation; it can influence larger perceptions of what construes a relationship and its parameters.
“In Chile, when you like a person and go out on dates with them, you are still not a couple," said sophomore Davis Teague, who is dating Kozak. "You are ‘andantes,' which is not the equivalent of an official girlfriend or boyfriend."
"I thought Nathalie and I were dating, but in her head I was not her boyfriend yet,” he added. “I had to ask her directly — do you want to be my girlfriend? In English that sounds like a middle school thing.”
Maverick Alzate, a Colombian American whose first language is Spanish, has been dating a native Arabic speaker for a year and two months. He speaks Arabic fluently, yet the couple usually communicates in English.
“We actually mix English and Arabic in a funny way,” said Alzate. “We speak English as a literal translation of Arabic. For example, we say ‘what you make?’ That structure only makes sense in Arabic. My girlfriend was educated in English and it’s the way she talks to her friends. It is a sign of being comfortable.”
Fighting in a foreign language can be difficult. For some, however, it serves as an advantage and helps one stay calm in tense situations. A second language requires more time to translate and therefore more thought. Alzate, for example, avoids using Arabic in critical conversations.
“Some moments are crucial and we need to make sure that we understand each other well," Alzate explained.
Issues in finding a common language can arise among families who do not speak English and still want to communicate with their child’s significant other.
“Because of my family, my long term partner should at least understand my language,” explained Carlos Escobar, whose native language is Spanish. “My parents do not speak good English and if my partner wanted to communicate with them, she would have to speak Spanish."
Teague experienced similar problems when he was visiting Kozak in Chile during the summer. Kozak was impressed by the efforts made by both her mother and boyfriend.
“I was so happy seeing them trying to speak to each other, because it means to me that they want to make a connection. I was a translator mostly, but they were managing simple conversations on their own,” she said.
There are some things Kozak wishes Teague understood.
“I just want to tell him every time I feel it — in Spanish, it’s called ‘vergüenza ajena,'" said Kozak. "It is something like second-hand embarrassment. When he says some things, I feel ‘vergüenza ajena’ and I wish he understood what I meant.”
For Escobar, the act of translation can sometimes be misleading.
“I say I love you all the time. I throw ‘te quiero’s like tissue papers, but in English it is just more intense,” he said. “My language has gotten me in trouble many times.”
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